Since the financial crash of 2008-09, there has been a steady rise in the popularity of hitherto fringe or non-existent anti-establishment parties (who ironically seek to become part of the establishment) in the West. On the right there is the Tea Party in the USA, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Jobbik in Hungary, True Finns in Finland and Alternative for Germany; on the left, Podemos in Spain and, of course, Syriza in Greece. All have made rapid strides in opinion polls and certain elections.
The Front National though, has always been a significant presence in France. In 2002, under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen (who predicted a surprise to the mainstream parties), the party made it to the presidential run-off, humiliating the Socialist candidate and prime minister Lionel Jospin. Ultimately, Jacques Chirac triumphed comprehensively, with more than 80 per cent of the French electorate essentially rejecting Le Pen. The latter’s recent comments on Ebola in West Africa confirm the repulsive character of the former paratrooper.
His daughter Marine Le Pen has sought to rebrand the party. Just as Alexander Dubček of Czechoslovakia in 1968 sought to implement ‘socialism with a human face’, it may well be argued that Le Pen the Younger has created ‘fascism with a human face’. The Front National has surfed the wave of discontent manifest across disenchanted electorates. In the European elections of 2014, as with UKIP in the UK, the party received more votes than any other party, with an historic 25 per cent, becoming France’s largest party in the European parliament. The big fear among French and international elites is that she could repeat her father’s feat in 2002, or worse, surpass it at the next presidential election in 2017.
Le Pen has positioned her party as one of protest, seeking to smash the cosy networks of politics, finance and the media. Yet the nationalistic heartbeat remains the same. Her address to the Oxford Union on the 5th of February was part of the continuing charm offensive. France is well known for its transport and other strikes so Le Pen was made to feel at home when protesters stopped her from delivering her speech for over an hour. Though the Oxford Union is frequented by the great and the good, by her attendance Le Pen instantly pitched herself into the company of O.J. Simpson and Richard Nixon in a list of infamy. Outside, 300 jeering, placard-bearing demonstrators deferred the time she was to make her discourse and security guards took the unusual step of closing the doors to the hall hosting the university’s debating society after a dozen balaclava-clad, anti-fascist protesters almost scaled the walls.
Le Pen, when able to come to the lectern, talked of her usual themes, the ‘threat of Islamism’, border control and the ‘dangers of immigration’. She cited the attack on Charlie Hebdo, though she is a fellow traveller the surviving journalists do not want. In line with the anti-Le Pen activists and dismissing the society’s invitation as a ‘stunt’, John Tanner, an Oxford councillor, said, ‘The people of Oxford don’t want this extreme right-wing racist from France given a platform here’. Many students were divided on the merits of the invitation – some said that the only way to combat extremism was through dialogue and freedom of speech while other abhorred the legitimacy the invitation allegedly conferred on Le Pen.
Like her father, Le Pen revels in being denounced by those she portrays as liberals. The protests may have succeeded in postponing rather than cancelling her lecture, but they illustrate the passionate disgust felt by those opposed to her policies. Le Pen the Younger may embarrass another Socialist presidential candidate, François Hollande but if these protests are a microcosm of the prevailing sentiment in France, she will too settle for being a runner-up in 2017 – as was one of football manager’s Bill Shankly’s dictums: ‘First is first, second is nowhere’.
Protests correspondent, Europe